Now the White Sox can turn their attention officially to the postseason.
With their 5-2 loss against the Tigers on Sunday, they capped off a 93-win season — the team’s highest win total since 2005 — and showcased some of the things that will factor into the Sox’ postseason success.
Right-handers Dylan Cease (four innings, one run) and Michael Kopech (three innings, one run) combined for 11 strikeouts. Cease was not used as a starter in last year’s American League wild-card series but has earned a spot in the playoff rotation with his performance this season.
“Very excited,” Cease said of starting against the Astros in the American League Division Series. “As a team, we are excited to have the opportunity. Me personally, it’s going to be a good time.”
Kopech likely will become a starter again in the future but has pitched successfully out of the bullpen all season, and his performance Sunday showed how he might be a a valuable weapon in the postseason.
Where starters often are pulled early in playoff games, having someone like Kopech who can give two or even three effective innings can make a difference.
The Sox could have three recently converted starters (Kopech, Reynaldo Lopez and Dallas Keuchel) in their bullpen against the Astros, and having them able to pick up a few innings in a playoff game is a good thing, but there’s also value in knowing some of the bullpen arms can take a high-leverage inning, too.
“There are times as you’ve seen that we’ve brought them out to pitch one inning in a close game, and they can do that,” manager Tony La Russa said. “And they have ability to pitch multiple innings. You’ll see bullpens where you’ll have a bunch of specialists. And it’s very important to us to have that kind of length and versatility.”
The White Sox tied the game 2-2 in the seventh inning when Adam Engel led off with a double and scored on Andrew Vaughn’s single. They loaded the bases with one out, but Yoan Moncada hit into a fielder’s choice double play that killed the rally.
Lopez gave up three runs in the ninth, including a go-ahead solo home run by Daz Cameron. The shaky performance didn’t rattle La Russa’s confidence in using Lopez out of the bullpen.
“That was kind of an atypical outing by Lopez. He’s been outstanding,” La Russa said. “In fact, he’s been outstanding coming out of the pen. He got behind, threw a fastball over the plate, and it got punched over the right-field fence.”
Not all was good, however. The Tigers stole four bases Sunday giving them nine in the weekend series. Holding runners has been a struggle for Sox pitchers all season.
“The more important part of that is defending the running game,” La Russa said Saturday.“And we’ve been active. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s more obvious. But there are several of our pitchers that have gotten better at their moves and quickening to the plate.
“There are things we’ve worked on to get better. We haven’t helped our catchers enough this season. That’ll be a big priority next year in camp.”
The Sox will head to Houston to begin the division series Thursday, and with the regular season over, La Russa can shift his team’s focus to what lies ahead in the playoffs.
“They play the whole game; they defend, they run the bases, they take good at-bats,” he said of the Astros. “You can see they’re among the top as far as putting the ball in play. But we match up well with them, and they’re dangerous to play against, and we’re dangerous to play against. I think it’s going to be a competition that both teams will really enjoy. We’ll see who comes out best.”